Mesh conference lives on through mobile app and iBeacon

When a conference ends, it doesn’t take long after the last speaker gives her closing words and the attendees filter out of the area – soon after, all of the booths get taken down, the last stragglers finish their drinks and leave, and the conference buildings are quiet and empty.

But at this year’s Mesh conference in Toronto, marketing and design agency SapientNitro made the event last a little longer by mapping out the attendees’ experiences and stories. While they focused on creating the data visualizations from the event, they worked with Panvista Mobile, a Toronto-based mobile design app agency, to harness the power of a mobile app and Apple Inc.’s new iBeacon technology.

The way iBeacon works is that it taps into Bluetooth Low Energy devices. It’s a technology protocol allowing a device to find a compatible smartphone nearby, pushing a number called a universally unique identifier to a device. The smartphone then assigns the number to an app, telling it what action to do as a result. Apple quietly unveiled the technology in June 2013, and it’s slowly been gaining traction as people figure out how to leverage it.

During the last presentation of the conference, SapientNitro unveiled data visualizations of where conference attendees had been going, what the most popular sessions had been, and highlights of the hubbub on social media.

“It was a good story to tell, to see the impacts and the connections start to build,” said David Bradfield, social strategy lead for North America at SapientNitro, during their presentation. He demonstrated how visualizations called #TheHive and #MobMoves illustrated where people were engaging.

“We streamed social data, and instead of just doing social listening, we really focused on, where’s the conversation going? Where are the moments that we have engaged?” he said. “We used iBeacons to track the activity of everybody who had the Mesh app open with Bluetooth on their phones. And what it allowed us to do was paint a picture and really synthesize the experience in some really interesting ways.”

For example, around six in the morning, some people began tweeting about waking up and getting ready for the second morning of Mesh, Bradfield said. Then people would arrive around nine, and then there were indicators of one of the climaxes of the conference – when speaker Neil Harbisson gave his talk on “hearing colour” with an antenna implant.

And then as people broke off and went to different conference buildings, like the Drake Hotel and the building at 99 Sudbury St., the activity changed once more, with the most activity happening on Twitter.

But the point of the exercise wasn’t just to show off some cool visualizations. For Simon Brightman, head of product development at Panvista, part of the appeal in pairing the Mesh app with iBeacons was being able to showcase the technology’s possibilities.

“Location-based marketing has traditionally been seen in a retail market, and unfortunately a lot of people just look at it as messaging,” Brightman said. “But it’s a lot more. It’s really about how you provide contextual support to users in the environment that they’re in. So it’s an intersection of place and time.”

(Image: Panvista).
(Image: Panvista).

He added building the Mesh app was about moving away from email as a core method of communication, instead building it out as a way to give conference attendees information as they walked through the buildings where the conference was being housed. For example, an attendee going from the Drake Hotel and entering 99 Sudbury St. would receive different, non-intrusive messages about the speakers and the content they were presenting.

Initially, Panvista’s team set up nine beacons – seven at the Drake Hotel and two in the building at 99 Sudbury St. For smartphone-armed users wandering around different areas of the buildings, like the conference rooms, eating areas, and networking zones, they got different messages and notifications. All of these messages pop up in-app, not sending attendees off to other websites.

“The fun thing with iBeacons is we found a balance between utility and snap,” Brightman said. “People are only going to get most of the notifications once, and that’s in order to support them and nudge them in the right direction … The beacon’s not supposed to take you away.”

For now, the app only works with iPhones and the iBeacon protocol, Brightman said. However, iBeacon does work with some Android devices, and this is just a “first implementation” fusing the technology and the app together, he added.

Jacob Karsemeyer, associate interactive program manager at SapientNitro, agreed there are a lot of possibilities with the iBeacon. For example, marketers are able to calibrate their app and iBeacon to listen to public sentiment on specific topics, he said. #TheHive pulled in data on sentiment and social engagement, while #MobMoves followed where people were going physically, and the movement between the iBeacons.

“For us, it’s a lot more about figuring out what the most valuable data a client is looking for, identifying the best technology to get that data, and then using that data,” he said.

With files from Brian Jackson

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Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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